“despite its now somewhat compromised playboy status, the river still lends London a shimmering, hazy and almost Venetian beauty”
This is the story of a daily commute: my journey to work and back along the River Thames from Woolwich Arsenal to the Embankment. As commutes go, it’s a thrilling ride encompassing wind-in-the-hair exhilaration, the capital’s greatest set-piece sights, a whole raft of august port history – and a fully licensed bar. A supremely civilised means of getting from A to B, it’s hard to imagine going back to the dead-eyed morning crush of a packed commuter train.
The Thames Clipper high-speed catamaran service plies the route from Woolwich Arsenal all the way west to the London Eye (about 9 miles) stopping at the O2 (formerly Millennium) Dome, Greenwich, Masthouse Terrace, Greenland, Canary Wharf, Tower of London, London Bridge, Bankside, Blackfriars, Embankment and the London Eye. In the morning ‘rush’ hour, the numbers of passengers swell at certain points in the journey to near-full capacity (about 200 people) as the boat begins to fill up from Greenwich pier onwards – but there’s always plenty of room, a comfortable seat for everyone and city views that knock the top deck of a double decker bus into a cocked hat.
Woolwich is beyond the Thames Barrier, and the river at this point is a broad and fearsome sweep of powerful water racing into the city and out again with the tide every twelve hours (much like the millions of people who journey to the capital and back each day). It’s the business end of the river – and though London’s days as a global sea port are long gone most mornings you’ll still see the stocky trio of Thames tugs (Redoubt, Recovery and Reclaim) dragging vast container-laden barges up and down the river and huge container ships ploughing their way up to dock at the Tate and Lyle sugar factory on the north side of the river, just east (downstream) of the barrier. These ships, with their mysterious and macho names like Lunar Bow, Tundra, Kapitan Vakula, Flintermar, Nanuk and Arklow Surf, never fail to inspire a sense of wanderlust: London, for all its cosmopolitan cachet, can be a very insular, inward-looking place and these globetrotting hulks, with their promise of voyages across wide open oceans to exotic ports on the other side of the world, provide the perfect antidote.
At top speed the clipper races along at a wind-buffeting, roaring and coffee-spilling (the bar comes in handy in the morning as well as the evening) 40mph, leaving behind it a churning, frothy ‘W’ on the water’s surface (and clouds of diesel fumes in the crisp, muddy morning air). Next stop upstream is the O2 dome. On the way into town in the mornings this is a no man’s land, with usually just a single desultory passenger waiting at the pier to board. Come the ride home in the evening, however, it’s the pivotal stop for the whole journey – it’s excited, gig-bound embarkees having defined the atmosphere of the whole trip out of town in a different way each night depending upon whether they are off to see Michael Bolton or Madonna, Leonard Cohen or Lady Gaga.
From a commuter’s point of view this section of the river is a little tiresome. Look at a map of London with its blue meandering wriggle and kink around the Docklands and you’ll see why: the boat has to do a lot of twisting and turning north and south around the Greenwich peninsula and the Isle of Dogs in order to carry on its journey west – adding almost twice as much time to the journey. It’s also strangely disorientating, the high rise buildings of Canary Wharf and the City beyond shifting position every time you look up to locate them. Progress is also hampered by several stops between Greenwich and Canary Wharf – this is the boat’s busiest patch as passengers from residential suburbs on both sides of the river hop on and off again.
Beyond Canary Wharf, however, the boat kicks into top gear again and screams up the river to Tower Bridge without stopping. Fleet-winged cormorants fly along beside us, managing to keep pace with the craft for a short while before sheering off and beady eyed gulls bide their time watching from wooden piles of disused quays along the north bank, until finally the City comes into view around the next bend. Visible up ahead is a thatch of bridges receding into the distance – Tower, London, Cannon Street, Southwark, Millennium and Blackfriars – all carrying people and traffic across from one side of the Thames to the other, as well as the city’s complement of ancient and modern landmarks (City Hall, the Shard, Tate Modern, St Paul’s, the Tower, the Gherkin and London Eye beyond). And as the buildings and business of the capital draw your eyes away from the water, the river itself becomes more like a playground. Here, instead of lean working boats you’ll see all manner of ludicrous craft – from flat bottomed open top river tour boats with names like Dixie Queen and Silver Sturgeon, to rich kids in speed boats and bloated cruise ships moored alongside sleek HMS Belfast at London Bridge. (The last one I saw was called Silver Cloud – I guess every liner must have one…)
But despite its now somewhat compromised playboy status, the river still lends London a shimmering, hazy and almost Venetian beauty, as the bright shifting morning light and the golden evening glow bounce off the bankside buildings throughout the city. It’s also the one constant in the capital’s history: at low tide the thick riparian sludge along the river’s banks emerges, revealing millennia of comings and goings, trade – and not a little tawdry tittle tattle.